Oct 24, 2013

Unearthing hopes in Eid

Takbeerat March, Photo by Ahmad M. Halawani
I would never forget her when she followed our trail when leaving the khankeh, begging us for some diapers for her child, thinking we were some sort of an association, and not knowing that every lira was either donated by people who never knew each other, and by our own pocket money. That was more heartbreaking than anything else that whole time.

I'm talking about the time we visited the "Khankeh", a place well known to old Tripolitans. It's the place where widows gather and are sorted out in a room each with her children, and sometimes more than a family need to fit inside the same room. I was explaining to my dear friend Soha, who came all the way from Beirut to Tripoli to celebrate Eid our own way, and cheer up the kids of Khankeh. I was explaining to her the history of this place, and how it was established and treated during the ottoman empire, and how it eventually ended up a worn out shelter for a bunch of helpless widows, who rely wholly on aid and help from their surrounding to survive. The day nobody offers them food, they won't be having any piece of it that day, all 30ish souls of them.

The day started out by leaving Beirut early morning, reaching Tripoli at around 10, and then heading straight to action. I already had a set of coloring pens donated by a friend of mine, my little brother Naji donated the elastics and hence we were making sets of 4 coloring pens, 12 sets in total. Next was to decide what to get them with the money we had. We already had gathered a little from donations basically, which we had topped a bit more from our pockets, and put up a plan. Twelve kids in khankeh were about to receive a goodie bag each in the occasion of Eid, hopefully to brighten their holiday.

I won't ever forget the enthusiasm Souha showed. We started out in an old library inside the old market, managed to bargain for some coloring booklets with stickers inside, some blank drawing pads, and eventually a bag of colorful balloons. The old guy was kind enough to help us out even though he was grumpy at other customers, I bet he felt the Eid spirit somehow!

Next was the bags we're about to fill with the goodies we got. 2 sets of 6 red and yellow bags each were enough to help really get that kick and feel what we're doing taking shape finally. Soon after the bags were there, the most glorious wave of rain was waiting for us there, cheering and wishing us good. With some help of the kind owners, we managed to pack 12 bags with the coloring pens, coloring books, drawing pads and balloons so far.

Mourad Getting Face Paint in preparation for the Clown Walk in Jabal And Tebbaneh.

Not far away, and beneath the heavy yet blissful rain, we spontaneously decided to bring in some maamoul! I mean, what is eid without the Maamoul? Souha kept telling me she felt as if she went back to the days of the red cross, where charity was all they did at the time. Soon after, we both had this insurmountable joy when our search for some candy and juice led us to that tiny internet cafe, whose owner was incredibly happy to sell us all his stock of wafers, bonbons and juice. I threw away a word of "sorry", feeling bad for wiping out his merchandise in Eid, replied with a wonderfully happy "not at all! NOT AT ALL!".

It was bliss and happiness the whole time, even the sky was shedding a smile upon us. The rain wasn't too heavy, better yet, it stopped the moment we were ready to visit the khankeh. And in fact, right after crossing the old market and the Hanged Mosque (jeme3 l m3alla2), there I was, giving Souha some instructions and tips on what to do and what not. I bet she had no idea what we were about to encounter there inside, standing on the edge of that damp staircase, leading to the infamously poor "khankeh".

Screaming out "ya allah" when going there is a must for me, a sign for all women to wear their veils upon me coming inside. But all in all, I asked Souha to go ahead in front of me just in case. First thing was greeting them, and of course, they intuitively gathered in front of our eyes, little by little, knowing there will be some sort of a giveaway. Turned my head for a bit to chill things down a bit, and said hello to the oldest woman in there and checked up on her. I knew them all, except for two new faces in there, I bet they are syrians for they didn't want to go out until we were about to leave.

I failed to keep an eye on Souha, who was holding 6 bags meant for girls, while the 6 bags of mine were obviously meant for boys. Anybody who has undergone such activities knows how hard it is to keep things in order. Took them only a split second to create the most annoying havoc ever, even though I was screaming out loud to send in their children only, priority to the youngest of course. But no, poverty and need has gotten to them to the point their way of treating us was ridiculously selfish, aggressive.

We Love Tripoli at their visit to the elderly shelter in Abu Samra for Eid.
Pictures taken by Randa M. and others, compiled by me.
 It killed me, the fact that some women are willing to make up lies to be able to get another goody bag, while others have the dignity to hide away and not ask for anything unless served. I pushed away the two annoying women, and made sure the youngest children got their bags. In a matter of a couple seconds, the bags were totally gone, and the old woman in the room behind me, with all the hideous stench coming out of her room, she was still calling out for us to hand her a bag, no matter how many times I explained to her that this is only for children.

Poverty at its worse indeed.

We excused ourselves, and left. Not a single word was said, we were both at the edge of crying. I had my eyes filled with tears the moment we were taking that dirty staircase back up, and I was sure Souha felt the same too, all until we noticed one of the women calling out for us and begging us for a bag of diapers! This is where I couldn't feel my legs anymore. Enough said.

I don't have any pictures of the thing, I don't have any sort of footage, no photos of the children, no recording whatsoever, nothing. Yet I believe what we did has changed the day, or at least two hours, of those poor kids, who didn't have the chance to feel Eid like they are supposed to be.

What is Eid to you? Doesn't it bother you to be wearing new clothes in Eid? Doesn't it the least hurt you to be having 4 sorts of main courses on the first day of Eid knowing such people are fighting over a piece of bread?

#basme_tayra Photo by Salam Fawwal
 I know I celebrated Eid my own way. Souha did the same, Mutaz, Mourad, Khaled Hassan Yahya Jihad Foutoun and Maya did the same as well. All of the initiatives that took place before or during Eid leave me proud and speechless. Who had heard of the Clothes Collecting Campaign my friend Reine launched for Syrian Refugees? Ever saw the #basme_tayra hashtag along your social media timelines? Did you stumble on the photos and the smiles they were spreading out? Did you hear about the famous Takbeerat march that took place in Tripoli, where more than 300 people gathered eventually in a huge square releasing lit balloons over Tripoli under what was known as #Mentaad2?. We love Tripoli had done also a wonderful job, so wonderful it brought me to tears while sitting on my desk in beirut going through the Facebook album pics. They made sure to spend the days of Eid with the long forgotten elders at the famous shelter in Abu Samra, a renowned hill in Tripoli. They sang along, listened to their stories, hugged them and even played with them, such an initiative that would put us in front of huge responsibilities from now on.

I remember a graffiti on one of Beirut's old walls, turned into a masterpiece when an artist beautifully put up a message over there saying: "Make somebody happy today" in arabic, with a HUGE yellow smiley face. What about you then? How far would you go to brighten one's day? What about providing relief to your needy neighbour? What happened to taking away grudges and egos and be humble to other people's trouble? Where did all the compassion go to?

I'm no saint, neither is any of my friends or those who wish to remain anonymous, we just did what we felt like and I would never feel any satisfied until it becomes a common culture to help others and wipe away poverty. After all, if this is not Eid, what is it then?

As my friend Reine used to say, "It is not about giving, it is about doing something better than just feeding a person. We need to teach the person how to fish for example instead of giving them a fish".

شي بيبيّض الوجّ

#Basme_Tayra. Photo by Hassan Osmani

Oct 20, 2013

Nath at the Cirque Du Soleil - Dralion

Now that the Cirque Du Soleil has ended their series of shows in Lebanon, Beirut, with their phenomenal act Dralion, I thought it was time to let go of the photos and tell a bit of how I managed to go there, watch the whole show, free of charge.

It wasn't until a couple night earlier that I got that message asking me if I would be interested to shoot the show at the Forum De Beirut, on the opening night, October 10th 2013, for it was the only night photographers were allowed. With no hesitation whatsoever, and after checking my schedule, there I was, booked for the show on a Thursday night. It was then when I met Rana, the curator of the agency I'm cooperating with, the Lebanon EGuide travel and tourism agency, who therefore led me inside the premises of the Forum.

I was surprised yet relieved of the amount of measures taken against photographers and videographers, a signof unmatched professionalism I must say. I had to sign a paper stating (generally) that I won't be using the photos for personal purposes, and never use this year's footage for any event next year. I wish I had the time to read the whole thing that I had signed upon, it was already too late to be doing that.

Having been escorted to the media corner, I was greeted by the European supervisor over there. I remember her name was Gretta, her whole job was to monitor our screens and make sure we abide by the rules, rules such as not recording any of those parts where clowns involve the audience withing their show, and prohibiting any kind of footage recording upon the end of the first three shows. Additionally, I was shocked to know we were to shoot only from the same spot! That was my first time ever to be faced with such a challenge, I kept thinking of how all my shots would look alike, all taken from the same angle, something to be really worried about when thinking of media and covering a show.

Eventually, I took decent pictures, not many, but decent they were indeed. I kept looking around at Stavro and the other guys with their super fancy 400+mm lenses worth alone more than double of all my equipment, yet I was able to snatch some beautiful shots with the help of my secret weapon, as cliche as this may sound.

With all three mishaps that happened during the show, I still can't seem to forget the fantastic show the crew have put together. From that flying couple performing that remarkable love story, to the glorious music accompanying all of the shows, to the winning performance of the clowns and their supporting actor in normal clothes. I'm not so good in words, it was purely glamorous to the point that first thing I said after leaving was "I wanna watch that AGAIN".

Shukran Cirque Du Soleil.

Another set of pics can be found on the Lebanon E-Guide site.
Full album can be found on my Facebook Profile.
Another copy of the blogpost was published on the Lebanon E-Guide website.

Oct 15, 2013

Adha For A Cause

One of the most beautiful pictures I ever seen. The clown mob in Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen

I wonder how easy it is to make somebody's day. Now that I and some friends had brightened the day of more than 200 children at least, I can simply ask myself what would stop me next from bringing joy to somebody's heart. I and everybody else have heard a handful of "You're the first ones to visit us in Eid", how could that be cold-heartedly overheard anymore?

All it took was Mu'taz's message last night, inviting a bunch of local friends for a gathering the next day morning. Point was to visit the two most damaged and violent areas in Tripoli: Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh. The resonance of both names in the back of our minds was an alerting sign of a bad thing to happen, only for a split second. But in fact, several got the kick to declare their participation and say "I'm in".

Although rumours were spreading around yesterday in town (as they always do) of a decision to start the fight the day afterwards (today), and ever since the town was under havoc once the gen. Rifi appeared on TV, the decision to go through the activity remained standing, and Taz in his message made it more than clear that "everybody's responsible for themselves".

Taz painting on kids faces and arms in Tebbaneh
The idea was pretty simple: A rather miniature flashmob or clown walk, where everybody dresses up as a clown, with facial paint and props everywhere, a barrel of sweets and a LOT of joy. Taz had also invited us to feel free to inform the children of how mischievous the toy guns are whenever there was chance.

Gathering was as agreed, waited a bit more for Yahya while we tied up the balloons and got our make up ready. Once everybody was ready, two cars were heading for our first checkpoint: Tebbaneh. I don't hide the fact I was a little worried of the outcome, but I had told myself on and on that, no matter what good I try to offer my community, no matter what activities I take part at to make people happy, if I can't succeed at this, I'm not really good at anything. And there we were, trunk open, props spread out among us and we're set on the very beginning of Tebbaneh.

Several young boys had gathered around us intuitively asking us of what we were doing there. Little did they know, as well as ourselves, that this little gathering of a bunch of Tripolitan guys and girls would turn into the wildest and biggest Eid celebration gathering in town in a long time. All I generally remember is the horns, the soap bubbles, the laughing faces, the startled parents, the curious neighbours and my lovely friends everywhere. We tried as much as possible to stick together at the beginning, soon to be ignored once we got so comfortable around the kids.

I personally have been to the place before, and trust me, today was nothing like before. The cooperation, the happiness and the overjoy was unbeatable. It's even the adults who made it better, they were offering us whatever they could to make it easier for the group of clowns to bring joy to the largest count of children ever. I can never forget the faces of all the grown-ups who thought we were funny and, unexpectedly, were laughing with us instead of at us.

Soon after the dabkeh has ended, the sweets have vanished, all faces were painted, smiles everywhere, not a single neighbour remained inside and the whole Tebbaneh has heard of us, it was time for us to pack and leave to our next destination: Jabal. Note to self: whenever in Tebbaneh and want to leave, leave silently. Running out chased down by the whole tebbaneh kids clan is not the highlight of my day :)

Soon after all preparations are done with, it was time for us to move to Jabal Mohsen. First thing I noticed there was the attitude of the kids and of course the adults there. The faces were more comfortable yet a bit more shy. It was something you could never easily let go of. I had the feeling that the people there felt as if they were unwanted, unwelcome or simply rejected by the town. And I don't blame them.

It only took me one chance to paint a child's face until the whole street wanted me to paint their faces and fronts as well. Had I been through it all, I couldn't but be amazed of the difference between kids here and there. All they wanted for drawings and symbols was flowers and butterflies for girls, and name initials for boys, compared to the fighter looks the Tebbaneh kids wanted, with the brows and under-eyes black paint, that's IF they ever agreed to be face-painted.

It wasn't long before we heard a shooting somewhere around us, and I've been told too we were on a demarcation line between both areas. To those who are unfamiliar with the place, that demarcation line was the most exposed street in the whole region, being beaten down the most whenever there's a fight. Knowing that we had done what we wanted to do in there, it was time for us to eventually leave. It was the thirst that took me to a nearby store to buy some water, gave him 2000LBP for two bottles of water. Got both bottles and he returned a 1000LBP, when asked why he answered with "half on you, and half on me, kel 3id w entou bkheir".

Maya can't breathe anymore!
 All of what I witnessed today left my heart so warm I felt I needed to do even more of what happened. The compassion my friends showed, the enthusiasm and the dedication are what kept me moving. I made sure I kept checking their faces throughout both flashmobs, I hadn't seen any bit of discourage or fear in their eyes, all there was is the courage and determination.

Khaled right after the mobs ended

Taz's message to the group
Finally, here's some of what we had done today:
  1. We celebrated Eid with kids from both Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh
  2. We broke the barrier of fear
  3. Both areas' citizens have witnessed a loud day like no other
  4. Children have now the chance to memorize at least one day of what happiness and tolerance mean
  5. Kids have laughed and they have seen how it's possible to enjoy something besides the toy guns in Eid
  6. Many of those who have flipped over the pictures now have more guts to do the same
  7. People there knew that there's at least a bunch of guys that haven't forgotten them

Thank you Taz for the initiative, thank you guys for the help, the rides, the shares and the spirit all in all.
I apologize for most of my friends and family for not being there, this has been really important to me, among many other things as well.
All I wish right now is to wake up one day and see new faces taking another step in that afflicted part of Tripoli doing one other activity to make these people a bit happier. Love you all.

Oct 7, 2013

A Monday Like No Other

I am happy. It was the bird's chirp that got me that boost of energy to get up and go out. I've been sick for the last 2 days, the flu has taken its toll on me to the point I was literally powerless, all until that bird came up to the window next to me. In fact I didn't see it yet. What's so special about that chirp is that it's been seriously forever that I heard birds chirping in Tripoli.

My first stop, the book seller.

My bike was already waiting for me downstairs, ready for our usual tour around tripoli, but not this time though. Everything was so slow, well at least slower that usual. I'm known to be using my bike whenever I'm in Tripoli, very few are the times I "walked" over there, yet today was this very few. I had never realized how much I'm missing out on.

I was happy, even with the littering all around, I was happy. I had the chance to walk around tripoli, in its old rotten alleyways. I was able to slowly grasp my surrounding, whether that be in the town center, at the gold market, or even at the oldest pharmacy whose owner's sight is so terrible he cannot see unless there was pure sunlight.

Little activity in the old souks, used to be much more than just this.
It was as if it's been so long since I've been there, even though I visit the town every weekend. I did my best to pass by every street there was, and made sure I don't hit the same street twice. The kind guy selling books right on the edge of Tall square was my first stop. I took my time to look around reaching out for photography books. Upon my insisting there were no good photography books, he, with his cultured temper, asked me to feel free to find the books myself.

It wasn't until I had finished with the book guy, I found myself standing on that same corner admiring the entourage, the people, the cars, the faces, the noise, the anger, the frowning. Yes indeed, everybody was scared, they were terrified for no particular reason. I guess it was the fear of the unknown, the future to come.

Kept going all the way to the old Sultan pharmacy, owned by the two brothers, among which is Dr. Nabeel, a 60ish year old man that I really admire. The amount of people in there was unbelievable, filling that tiny space inside the old dusty pharmacy leaving no room for the employees to move around.

Next was when I decided to buy some socks, socks in tripoli always have that one and only image in my head: the Sharamand shop inside the old market, right by the intersection of the gold market and the vegetable souk. Was a funny moment there when the new employee had to deal with a woman from shekka, whose accent was pretty foreign for the guy, but at the same time she was the friend of the owner. She kept pushing this little guy's buttons with her unfamiliar vocab until the guy lost it, that's when I and the old owner, who were both watching the scene, burst in laughter and giggles, all while noticing her evil look she had.

The simple act of climbing the old staircase right by the shop to somewhere below the castle, was enough to make my day. I never was able to climb a stair when riding my bike, such a shame because of all the small details I kept memorizing. It was all until I spotted that tomb behind a hidden mosque. The grave belonged to one of the many old islamic researchers in Tripoli, back in the days where it was "city of scientists". It took me back to the time where I had made this deal with myself to visit every single mosque in Tripoli, one by one. It was then when I had stumbled on this "jewel of the souk". Something to add on the dose of happiness all in all.

Eid Preparations, as cheap as they may seem
Tripoli has honestly become the city of several things. One who lives there could easily tell it's the city of "old mercedes taxis", or as for what I tend to call it lately, "city of gutter and meatless motorcycles". It's kind of unfortunate yet miserable to see the escalating amount of poverty around. There was not a single sign of development and prosperity. Everyone is either smoking or simply grumpy, tossing a word here and there, complaining, cursing or better yet, doing nothing, nothing at all, which is a lot worse.

It was the Monday I had the chance to walk in my old Tripoli, and it's getting old indeed. One more reason to reminisce on the mondays to come.